The work of William Morris and John Ruskin inspired a legion of artists in the Land of the Rising Sun. Aoife O'Riordain goes exploring

WHY JAPAN?

For many people, Arts and Crafts means John Ruskin and William Morris. However, the movement, which flourished in the UK, Europe and America from the 1880s, was also enthusiastically embraced in Japan between 1926 and 1945.

The man credited with kick-starting Arts and Crafts in Japan was Yanagi Soetsu. Greatly influenced by what was happening in the UK, and a good friend of English potter Bernard Leach (who at the time was living in Japan), Yanagi coined the phrase mingei or "people's art", which became the term applied to the Japanese movement.

Japan has always had a strong tradition of folk art, and Yanagi travelled throughout the country uncovering an array of indigenous crafts. He believed that these everyday objects made by unknown artists possessed an innate beauty and reflected the real Japan. Bernard Leach and the Japanese potters Tomimoto Kenkichi, Kawai Kanjiro and Hamada Shoji went on to become some of the major exponents of mingei. Following the Mingei Trail, is an interesting way to explore Japan.

ENOUGH THEORIES. WHERE SHOULD I START?

The Blade Runner-esque city of Tokyo may seem like an unusual place to start looking for folk art, but one of its suburbs is home to Japan's most important crafts museum. The Mingeikan or Japan Folk Crafts Museum, 4-3-33 Komaba, Meguro-ku (00 81 3 3467 4527) was founded by Yanagi in 1936. The tranquil, traditional-style wooden building was designed by Yanagi to look like a country residence, and houses an extensive collection of over 10,000 folk art objects from all over Japan, including textiles, pottery, metalwork, woodwork and paintings. It also exhibits work by Bernard Leach and a collection of Korean Yi dynasty crafts that were inspirational to the mingei artists. Across the street is a traditional 19th-century long gatehouse, which was moved by Yanagi piece by piece from Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. The museum opens daily from 10am-5pm, except Mondays. Admission costs Y1,000 (£5) per adult.

For an unexpected slice of the country in the centre of the city, pay a visit to Kuremutsu, 2-2-13 Asakusa (00 81 3 3842 0906). Tucked down a small street near the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, this small, inviting restaurant is in a traditional-style Japanese farmhouse (that is in reality several different farmhouses). Set behind a courtyard, inside it is scattered with farming implements and glowing paper lanterns. It serves three kaiseki set menus, which offer a procession of small courses including cod cooked in miso and sashimi costing from Y5,000 (£25) per person. The restaurant opens Tuesday-Sunday 4pm-9.15pm and reservations are recommended.

WHERE NEXT?

Surrounded by mountains, Kyoto is one of the most beautiful and alluring cities in Japan. Steeped in history, it was established in AD794 and modelled on the capitals of ancient China. For over 1,000 years, Kyoto was also the seat of Japan's imperial court, until Tokyo became the capital city in 1868. Kyoto is also dotted with a large number of stunning temples, shrines, castles and gardens, 17 of which are designated Unesco World Heritage Sites.

One of the most popular times to visit Kyoto is during April and May, when the gardens of the temples are awash with cherry blossom. Alternatively, November is the best time for leaf-peeping or momiji-gari, when the city's gardens are ablaze with the riotous reds, oranges, russets and yellows of thousands of maple trees. Momiji-gari is so popular that most hotels keep daily charts of which temples are coming into their peak. One such destination is the impressive Nanzenji Temple, the principle place of worship of the Rinzaishu-Nanzenji school of Zen Buddhism. Built in 1264 by Emperor Kameyama, the present buildings date from the late 16th century.

Once past the temple's imposing Sanmon Gate, you are surrounded by trees and the sound of rushing rivers. One of the most beautiful features of the temple complex is the tranquil Hojo Garden, adjacent to which you can see the dimly lit Hojo Hall with its precious sliding door adorned by a painting of a tiger drinking water entitled Mizunomi no Tora. Admission to the temple costs from Y300-1,300 (£1.50-6.50).

AM I STILL ON THE MINGEI TRAIL?

Yes. Don't pass up the chance to visit Kawai Kanjiro's House, 569 Kanei-cho, Gojozak, Higashiyama-Ku, Kyoto (00 81 75 561 3585), in the city's old pottery district. The former home of the celebrated mingei potter was built in 1937 in a rustic Japanese architectural style. Now a museum dedicated to his life and works, it has an intimate feel - all the rooms were designed by either Kanjiro or one of his friends, including fellow mingei designer Kuroda Tatsuaki. At the back of the house, visitors can see the huge kiln where Kanjiro fired much of his work. Admission costs Y900 (£4.50) and the museum opens daily from 10am-5pm, except Mondays, when it is closed.

WHAT ELSE CAN I DO IN KYOTO?

Have tea at the well-known sweet shop Kagizen Yoshifusa (00 81 75 561 1818) on the corner of Hanami-koji and Shijo-dori, a Gion institution with a wood interior that was also designed by Kuroda Tatsuaki. The old streets of the city's Gion district are an atmospheric warren, where, in the early evening, you can catch glimpses of geiko (the name for geisha in Kyoto) and their apprentices going to the various bars to meet their clients. Kyoto is also one of the best places to sample a night or two in true Japanese-style at a traditional inn or ryokan. These guest houses offer the perfect introduction to Japanese culture and cuisine, although if you are not used to sleeping on the floor, one or two nights will probably be enough for most Westerners.

One of the most historic of Kyoto's ryokan is the Hiiragiya Ryokan (00 81 75 221 1136; www.hiiragiya.co.jp/en), which offers the ultimate in tatami-mat luxury. Rooms furnished with antiques and overlooking private gardens cost from Y30,000 (£150) per person per night including two meals. Contrary to popular belief, ryokan are not all expensive. A good budget option is the Yoshi-ima in the heart of Gion on Shinmonzen Street (00 81 75 561 2620; www.yoshi-ima.co.jp/en), where rooms start from Y18,000 (£89) per person including two meals.

Eschew the past for a night and have dinner at one of the city's newest restaurants, Naito, Nishigawa Yanaginba, Ebisug, Awa Agaru, Nakagyo ku, (00 81 75 211 3900). This tiny venue is a traditional Kyoto house that is approached via a long path. The interiors are decorated with delicate paper screens and white orchids, and the sublime food offers a more modern twist on traditional fare.

I'D LIKE TO GO TO THE COUNTRY

You might be fooled into believing you had arrived in deepest Surrey with a visit to the Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art, 5-3 Zenihara, Oyamazaki-cho (00 81 75 957 3123; www.asahibeer-oyamazaki.com), a short train ride from downtown Kyoto. The museum, owned by the Asahi Beer Corporation, is housed in an Arts & Crafts-style house dating from the 1930s and is surrounded by beautiful landscaped gardens. For mingei fans, it also offers the opportunity to see a significant collection of works by artists such as the textile designer Serizawa Keisuke and Tomimoto Kenkichi, Bernard Leach, Hamada Shoji and Kawai Kanjiro.

The gallery also houses a significant collection of works by Western artists such as Picasso, Redon, Modigliani and Degas. However, the most startling addition is the Sunken Jewel Box, a modern wing built in 1995 and designed by the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando. It displays several paintings from Monet's Water Lilies series. The museum opens daily from 10am-5pm, except Mondays, when it is closed. Admission costs Y700 (£3.50) per adult.

I'D LIKE TO SEE MORE OF TRADITIONAL JAPAN

The city of Kurashiki, two hours south-west of Kyoto, is well worth a detour and gives a real insight into traditional Japanese life in the 18th century. The Bikan Historical Quarter, contains perfectly preserved 350-year-old buildings dating from the Edo period. The whitewashed kura - rice storerooms and old merchants' houses - that line a stretch of the willow-draped Kurashiki river, offer a picture-book image of the Japan of days gone by. The canal was once used for transporting rice and cotton when it was a busy merchant city under the direct control of the Edo Shogunate.

Many of the buildings in Kurashiki have been sympathetically restored to house museums, tea-shops, restaurants and ryokan. Also an important artistic centre, one of the city's loveliest museums is the charming Kurashiki Museum of Folkcraft, 1-4-11 Chuo (00 81 86 422 1542). Founded in 1948 and one of 12 folk art museums dotted around Japan, it is housed amid a cluster of restored rice granaries. It displays an important collection of over 800 mingei objects, as well as folk art from other corners of the world. The museum's shop also sells a small but enticing collection of crafts including the locally-produced Kurashiki hand-blown glass. Admission costs Y700 (£3.50) per adult and the museum opens daily, except Mondays, from 9am to 5pm.

Another of Kurashiki's big attractions is the neighbouring Ohara Museum, 1-1-15 Chuo (00 81 86 422 0005; www.ohara.or.jp). This private museum, established in 1930 by the local entrepreneur Ohara Magosaburo, is Japan's oldest private museum. It displays a collection of European works from artists including El Greco, Monet, Matisse and Gauguin.

The gallery also houses an impressive mingei collection, with a series of galleries devoted to Serizawa, Hamada, Leach, Tomimoto and Kanjiro. The museum opens daily from 9am to 5pm except Mondays, when it is closed. Admission costs Y1,000 (£5). For a goodwill guide to Kurashiki call Ms Junko Mino on 00 81 86 424 7774. Otherwise, pick up a walking map of the city from the tourist desk in the train station (00 81 86 426 8681).

I'D LIKE SOME 'MINGEI' TO CALL MY OWN

If you are really serious about your handicrafts, one of Tokyo's most celebrated craft shops is Takumi, 4-2, 8-Chome Ginza Chuo-Ku (00 81 3 3571 2017; www.ginza-takumi.co.jp). Opened in 1933, it sells a wide selection of pieces from all over Japan including pottery, textiles, furniture, lacquer-ware, glass, toys and carpets. Anything you purchase also comes with a helpful explanation of what region the item is from and the name of its maker. The shop opens Monday-Saturday from 11am-7pm.

In the 1930s Bernard Leach also designed an exhibition featuring some of his work at the Takashimaya store in Ginza, one of Tokyo's main shopping areas - 2-4-1 Nihombashi, Chuo Dori (00 81 3 3211 4111). Today, the store regularly stages crafts displays in a gallery on one of its upper floors. Still on a handmade theme, pop around the corner to Haibara (00 81 3 3272 3801), 7-6 Nihombashi 2-chome, Chuo-ku - one of the city's oldest artisan paper producers. Be sure and stock up on its beautiful and reasonably-priced cards, papers and postcards before you leave. It opens Monday-Friday from 9.30am-6.30pm, Saturdays 9.30am-5pm.

ANY TIPS FOR THE FIRST-TIMER IN JAPAN?

The Japanese are generally very tolerant when it comes to bumbling Westerners trying to get to grips with their sometimes complex etiquette. It's very important to respect Japanese sensibilities and traditions, such as taking off your shoes and donning the slippers provided when visiting temples, some museums, restaurants and homes. Also, English is not as widely spoken as you might assume, so make sure you ask someone in your hotel to write down where you are going in Japanese, so you can show it to taxi drivers or passers-by if you get lost. Never point your chopsticks at anyone, stick them in a bowl of rice or pass food to anyone with them (the last two are related to funeral rites and are considered quite offensive) Also, if at all possible, try not to blow your nose in public.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

ANA (020-8762 8800; www.ana.co.uk), Japan Airlines (0845 7747 7000; www.jal.com), British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 574 7747, www.virgin-atlantic.com) all fly direct from London Heathrow to Tokyo's Narita airport. JAL also offers return flights from London Heathrow to Osaka's Kansai airport. Expect to pay around £600-£700 return but at busy periods, particularly around cherry blossom-time fares can be more expensive.

Cheaper fares may also be available through discount agents such as Trailfinders (0845 058 5858; www.trailfinders.co.uk). CTS Horizons (020-7836 9911; www.ctshorizons.com) and Jalpak International (020-7462 5577; www.jalpak.co.uk) both offer tailor-made itineraries throughout Japan.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

The Tokyo metro is relatively easy to use, as all the signs are translated into English. Tickets start from Y160 (80p) for a one-way journey. (www.tokyometro.jp). Travelling between Japanese cities is also the ideal chance to ride the bullet trains, or shinkansen. A Japanese Rail pass is worth investing in if you plan to venture further afield. These offer unlimited travel for seven, 14 or 21 days on virtually all routes of the JR Transportation Network and include the majority of shinkansen, except the super-fast Nozomi bullet train. Passes need to be bought outside the country from an authorised agent such as the Japan Travel Centre (0870 890 0360; www.japantravel.co.uk - see also www.japanrailpass.net). They cost from Y28,300 (£140) per adult for seven days. When you arrive in Japan you will need to have your pass validated in a Japanese Rail office, which can be found in most railway stations. On busier routes it is also advisable to reserve your seat in advance.

A TASTE OF ARTS & CRAFTS JAPAN, CLOSER TO HOME

Visit the Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington (020-7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk) for its International Arts & Crafts show (17 March-24 July), a display of over 300 objects ranging from textiles and furniture, to jewellery, ceramics and metalwork from Europe, America and Japan. It will include one of the most comprehensive collections of Japanese "mingei" objects ever put together, including a replica of the Mikuniso, a set of rooms designed by Yanagi, Hamada and Kanjiro for the Folk Crafts Pavilion of an exhibition held in Tokyo in 1928, which showed how middle class people could live in a combined Japanese and Western style. The rooms will feature several of their original elements.

Admission is £10 per adult and advanced booking is recommended on 0870 906 3883 or on the museum's website. Also contact the Japan National Tourist Office (020-7734 9638; www.seejapan.co.uk).

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